Cynthia M. Allen: Will schools open, be more normal in the fall? Or will COVID-19 disrupt another year?
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Cynthia M. Allen: Will schools open, be more normal in the fall? Or will COVID-19 disrupt another year?

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Cynthia M. Allen

Last week, our family gathered around the computer to watch our eldest daughter “graduate” from preschool.

It was the bittersweet and well-intended culmination of her school’s effort to keep students connected after an abrupt and disappointing end to the semester.

Her teacher cried. And after my daughter realized, for perhaps the first time since this whole thing started, that she wouldn’t be returning to her classroom and her classmates, she did, too.

Our anticlimactic end to the school year was not unique.

Children everywhere are closing out the academic year virtually, graduating online, saying goodbye to friends and teachers, with the same energy as astronauts waving from outer space — so close and yet so far.

Meanwhile, parents everywhere, who have become de facto educators and reluctant homeschoolers, are breathing a sigh of relief.

Glad that’s over.

But is it?

Because there is good reason to believe that next school year is going to be equally challenging when it could be more normal.

In Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott last week announced that schools may reopen campuses for in-person summer school beginning June 1, providing that safety protocols such as social distancing and temperature checks are followed.

The relative success or failure of schools to prevent outbreaks this summer will inform how districts proceed come the fall, when local leaders will decide what the new academic experience looks like.

To that end, the Centers for Disease Control has put forth guidelines for schools reopening, which herald an academic year of great tumult for children and parents, and a possible return to online learning at some point.

Some of the CDC guidance is benign, such as reinforcing good hand hygiene (easier said than done with kindergartners) and encouraging staff and students to stay home when exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or other ailments.

But there are suggestions that seem downright dystopian: frequent health checks; cloth face coverings for children older than 2 years; closing dining halls and playgrounds; an end to field trips; separated desks; plastic screens between bathroom sinks; and hallways with single direction traffic and papered with signs reminding kids to stay 6 feet apart.

Never mind that these precautions will be challenging if not impossible to enforce; they will create an environment of fear, especially for young children and those with special needs.

Speaking of fear, the CDC guidance recommends that to avoid the ever-present concern of outbreak, each COVID-19 case in a school should result in dismissal for two to five days. Of course, that would disrupt academic and social development and create the same child-care concerns that have plagued many families this spring, especially since more people should be working in the fall.

And how many interruptions can a school or district reasonably sustain before reverting to online learning for the remainder of the year? Then we’re back to where we started.

As demanding as online learning has been for many families, some will choose to homeschool to avoid either the disease or the inevitable turbulence and troubling environment that awaits their children in the fall.

And who would blame them?

Some schools in other nations have reopened; some never closed. Either way, they will provide a lot of good information about how U.S. schools can reopen successfully, and we should do everything possible to learn from those experiences.

Like the hopeful research that suggests kids are not the vectors for COVID-19 we once assumed.

For reasons scientists can’t yet explain, it appears that children are less likely to transmit the virus than adults. Those who do get the virus, the rare but concerning and possibly related cases of multisystem inflammatory syndrome notwithstanding, generally experience mild symptoms and recover quickly.

If those trends hold, schools may actually be able to operate closer to normal than we once thought.

Wouldn’t that be something?

Because no one wants online preschool graduations to become the norm.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.

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